Last week I preached a sermon from Acts 9, the Damascus Road Conversion of Saul the Pharisee.
In order to set the stage for where I wanted to go, I needed to paint a picture of the type of person Saul likely was. And, instead of just listing off some random facts/insights, I thought, “hey, it’d be creative and fun to write a historical fictional letter from Saul’s teacher, the Rabbi Gamaliel, as a way to establish the character of Saul!”
So I did.
And it was fun.
I imagined Gamaliel responding to a letter from the Apostle John, where John was curious about the upbringing of Saul because he was a bit uncertain in this new-fangled “Apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul.
Anyways, I wrote out the letter and was going to open my sermon by reading it.
But… as always happens… my sermon got too long. So I had to edit.
And this letter got cut.
However, so as to not waste my creative efforts, I share it here with you all, should you find yourself one day thinking to yourself, “I wonder what Paul was like, when he grew up, and trained to be a Pharisee under Gamaliel?”
A question, I am certain, you ask yourself often.
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Dear Blessed John,
Grace and peace to you from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
While you and I never have quite seen eye-to-eye on that Carpenter from Nazareth, I have always held you dear in my heart as one who, like myself, sees love as the highest way.
I pray this letter finds you well taken care of. We both now are excellent at aging, but nonetheless I find every day a fresh reminder of what I once was is no longer what I am now, and what I once could do with the ease of youth I now fail before I even begin.
But that aside, let me get right to what you have inquired about.
You are hoping that I can provide some insight in to your Brother in the Lord, Saul. From what I can surmise from your previous letter you have only recently met his acquaintance, but have certainly heard talk of him for years. And, from the sound of it, he has become quite the evangelist for your cause. Very excited about this one you call Jesus the Messiah.
And yet you hope, I gather, to understand more fully who this man is and from whence he came. So I shall do my best to tell you about this Apostle to the Gentiles (as some have taken to calling him).
As you know, my grandfather was Hillel, and he was unequivocally the most prominent religious leader of his day. A renowned sage and scholar of Judaism. It should be noted, in fact, that it was he who said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” (It is my understanding that you claim the Carpenter from Nazareth said a similar thing… and if that is so, then perhaps he is not all that bad after all?)
But as I was saying, my grandfather established the premier method of studying and learning Judaism, and it was in his honor that I too opened my own school here in Jerusalem to train up young Jewish men in the ways of the Torah.
It was thus that I became acquainted with young Saul when his father (a Pharisee himself) dropped off the eager young lad at the age of 12 to learn from me at my school.
If you’ve met Saul in person, then perhaps you already know how his given Hebrew name, Saul, stands in stark contrast to his physical appearance.
As you well know, he is named after the Saul of old… our forefathers first King, who was chosen as King because he stood a ‘head taller than all the others.’ And so I imagine that our young Saul’s parents gave him this name with great hopes and expectations that he too would grow to be of impressive physical stature.
And yet, it was clear when the young lad first crossed the threshold of my door that he was not bound for such vertical greatness. He was then, as he is now, the runt of the litter. A head shorter than all the others, one would more accurately say…
But what this young lad lacked for in size he more than made up for it in mind.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, Saul came from the city of Tarsus, a city famous for its Stoic Philosophers. So it was no surprise that young Saul showed remarkable skill in the ways of rhetoric and philosophy.
He was brilliant in the arts of debate and logic, out-maneuvering students that had been at my school for more than 5 years!
As all young Israelites do, he had memorized a great deal of the Torah and the Psalms, but his capacity to internalize them and exegete them were unparalleled.
Yet he was, by no means, a humble boy.
No, he was driven, motivated, and determined to be the best.
He connected well with me and the other teachers, even as his ability to make friends his own age was altogether unimpressive.
Debate the merits of imposing Sabbath day requirements on God-fearing Pagans with his classmates? He’d effortlessly lead the way.
But spend the afternoon skipping rocks across the Jordan with his peers? He’d rather copy the Scroll of Isaiah backwards.
He was not a bad kid, but he always had, what seemed, a chip on his shoulder, as though every day his name reminded him of what he was not.
The years went by and he studied, he prayed, and he advanced in Judaism far beyond those around him. When he graduated from my School he was already a full-blown Pharisee, invited to sit at times in the Great Council (of which I resided over for the past 25 years, as you may recall).
It was thus that you perhaps first came to know of young Saul, when your Movement first got under way, and young Stephen (God rest his soul) was needlessly murdered for preaching out about the Carpenter.
(If you recall, I urged the Council against such rash and violent behavior, but alas I could not control them…)
But as I was saying, young Saul, full of determination and with a zealous spirit the likes of which I’ve not seen before or since, saw an opportunity to advance even further in the ranks of the Pharisees.
I recall the look in his eyes every time a follower of the Way would come through town, teaching about the Carpenter. The way his long nose would twitch, and his hands would nervously pull at his sleeves.
He was convinced that to show his commitment to the Great Council and to the other Pharisees that he must hate-with-passion those who followed the Carpenter.
It was in such a rage that I remember seeing him standing there, holding the cloaks of those who hurled their rocks at Stephen… cheering on the attackers, and reviling young Stephen, even as Stephen was shouting out words of forgiveness and grace.
Shortly after that, when Saul came to the Council and requested our blessing to chase down these followers, I remember for the first time being scared.
Saul had always been a bit rough around the edges, and had always had an intensity about him, and always walked around with a chip on his shoulder, but I’d never considered him a violent man.
But now, looking back, I can see how for the first time I was worried that he’d go too far. But the hatred (and, sadly, fear) that the Council had against these new Followers of the Carpenter was too great, and so Saul was given authorization to purge the synagogues of Damascus from any and all followers. To capture them and imprison them. To steal them back here to Jerusalem to stand trial.
As he left that afternoon, with papers in hands, I could hear him muttering under his breath… breathing words of hate and disgust.
He’d been a good Pharisee. One of the best, even.
But I feared that this much hate, this much rage, would be too much for the young prodigy.
The rest of that story, as you know better than I, is a remarkable story of redemption and change.
And even though I still disagree with you, about the Carpenter, I must say that as his old Teacher, it brings a peace and warmth to my soul to see Saul, or Paul as he know goes by, turn in to such a loving, kind, generous, and wise man.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you.
Gamaliel The Elder
President Emeritus of the Great Council in Jerusalem